Trump, Kim, and a rising China

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Like many Americans I woke up this morning to a lot of photo ops. There was President Trump shaking Chairman Kim’s hand. Then I saw them around a large table. Another showed them with a backdrop of American and North Korean flags side by side. Through it all I wondered what it was I was really seeing. Was it a meeting of substance, with concrete discussions that will lead to the eventual dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program? Or, was it all pomp and circumstance, a sideshow designed to bolster the already immense egos of both leaders? Based on the so-called signed agreement, which basically resembles the several previous agreements between that government and previous U.S administrations, I’d have to say we’re closer to the latter, instead of the former.

Time will tell of course. As a progressive who is anti-war and pro-diplomacy as a general rule, I hope to hell this somehow leads to peace in the Korean peninsula. There is much at stake of course but throughout this whole process I can’t seem to forget about the one country that looms large over everything: China. Yes, the elephant in the room. The ascending and increasingly influential country that recently just allowed for its current leader to remain in charge for life. The country making huge inroads in places like the African continent. The country that seems certain to at some point dethrone America as the world’s largest economy. The country that owns over a trillion dollars in U.S debt. Yes, that country. Does Trump or anyone in his administration believe that China won’t have an ultimate say as to what eventually comes out of these negotiations?

Obama and the TPP

So with China and its ever-increasing influence as a backdrop, I find myself thinking of President Obama. Specifically, President Obama and his unwavering support of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, the massive pact between the United States and several Pacific rim countries including Japan, Australia, and Singapore as well as our neighbors Mexico and Canada. Massive trade agreements such as these have been lightning rods amongst the left and right side of the political spectrum. In fact, liberals such as Senator’s Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders found themselves on the same side as President Trump, who ultimately pulled the United States out of the deal. Other Republican Senators, such as Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio at one point supported the pact but later ended up having reservations.

For a long time I couldn’t quite figure out why Obama was so steadfast in his support for the deal. In fact, I tended to fall more toward the Warren/Sanders view of how these trade pacts tended to hurt American workers in the long run. After all, as a long time resident of Ohio, I saw the devastation first hand to communities such as Lorain and Youngstown, towns that at one time were bustling with manufacturing jobs, but fell on hard times due to what many had attributed to the North America Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA).

Eventually though I began to understand Obama’s reasoning when it came to TPP. While I think he legitimately believed the pact would be beneficial to America in the long run as far as jobs were concerned, it was his linking of the trade deal to China that began to change my mind. In other words, while the goal of the pact was to bind Pacific nations closer through lower tariffs, Obama also felt the deal served as a buttress against China’s growing regional influence. As we move forward after the North Korean summit, what Trump ends up doing as it relates to China is perhaps the most pressing issue at hand.

Caution ahead

Already, Trump has seemingly conceded an issue to Kim, the cessation of the so-called ‘war games’ between South Korea and the U.S. In return for that all we seem to have gotten was a pledge from Kim to denuclearize. In addition to that, Trump is already leaving open the possibility of withdrawing our troops from the demilitarized zone. It’s not the first time Trump, or others for that matter, have suggested withdrawing our troops from that region. Suggesting the withdrawal so quickly with the summit barely over seems to be another bargaining chip dealt away. Is there any doubt whatsoever that China would overwhelmingly welcome a complete withdrawal of U.S troops from the region?

So what if Obama was right all along about the TPP? While not a perfect deal to be sure, it still represented a check and balance against the ever-increasing power of China. And before anything is decided about our troops at the demilitarized zone, Trump and his administration needs to think long and hard about what it may mean as it relates to the overall balance of power in the region. First he withdrawals from the TPP, leaving China to pretty much write the rules for trade in the region. Now, he talks about withdrawing troops. This also comes on the heels of Trump’s erratic and baffling performance at the recent G-7 summit, threatening tariffs and alienating our long time friends and allies.

There’s so much at stake. I fear we have an administration more interested in optics and praise for the President of the United States rather than the long-term interests of our country and those in the region who have relied on us for security and stability. The trend lines are clear. The yellow light is flashing. China is waiting in the wings. Time will tell if our current leadership is up to the task. I wish I was more optimistic.

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